• Caleb Johansen

Advice for Adjective Order in English

Updated: Aug 24, 2019

After finding a theory on how we order our adjectives in English, I decided to elaborate on the topic and post it on the language learning platform iTalki. You can find what I wrote copied below. My article is based off of my own theories as well as an excerpt from Mark Forsyth’s book "The Elements of Eloquence," and this article questioning it's validity:

Big, bad wolf or bad, big wolf?

#languagelearning #english #linguistics #grammar #adjectives #languages



Original Article on iTalki


For Elementary /

Intermediate English Learners

Please note that this concept is more of a theory, but it still holds some very substantial truth behind it. This topic does not cover adjectives that fall in the same category or rare exceptions of this rule. In many languages, the order of adjectives that describe a single noun doesn't matter. In English it does. If you do it wrong, you still get the point across, but it might not sound right. Many native English speakers still struggle with this, and most of us don't even know we unconsciously word things this way. Here's how you do it... [opinion], [size], [age], [shape], [color], [origin], [material], [purpose], [Noun] For example, you could have a "lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife", and that would sound fine. But, you can't have "iron new pots" because [age] comes before [material]. This would better be said as "new iron pots". The example above about the knife is not something you would generally read or hear, but it's still grammatically correct and makes sense. Usually when describing an object, you want to follow the rule of 3's, meaning that you use a maximum of three adjectives before a noun. You could then continue to describe the object in following sentences. You might better describe the knife like this:


Little, silver, whittling knife with a green handle.

"I have a little silver whittling knife that I got from my grandfather. It has a green handle and I believe it came from France! It's very old and a bit rectangular shaped, but it still works surprisingly well for its age!" Notice how I used only three adjectives first to describe the knife, then I continued to describe other aspects of it in the following sentences. Also note how I never described it as 'lovely' because your opinion of an object can usually be derived from how you talk about it. Here, it can be obvious that I think it's a very good knife because

  1. I'm talking about the knife in more than one or two brief sentences, and

  2. my comment on how sharp the knife is suggests that I may like using it because of this quality.

The reasoning behind this whole 'order of adjectives' is that we put things that we care about the most first. We put attributes like [size], [age], [shape] and [color] first because those attributes describe how the object generally looks. Other attributes like [origin], [material] and [purpose] are of secondary importance. We like to list things that describe how an object looks first because it's easier to know what something is once we know what it looks like. [Origin], [material] and [purpose] don't give you this kind of general information. Sometimes you can switch attributes around depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. The two groups of things we put first (size, age, shape and color) and things we put last (origin, material and purpose) are generally never switched around, but attributes within the first group can be. For example, if I want to emphasize the color of an object along with describing its shape, I may put the color before the shape along with using the word 'very' for emphasis. "It's a very green rectangular knife" sounds much better than "It's a rectangular, very green knife". The following phrases are also permissible: "A very old little knife" "A very rectangular little knife" "A very green little knife" "A very rectangular old knife" "A very green old knife"

Please comment below if you have any questions about this or would like me to phrase something in a simpler sentence for you!

In response to this article Terecia Elshinta wrote:

"Thank you for your simple yet helpful answer. One more thing, I've been wandering on Google just to find out what the logic behind the order. I haven't found it yet, most of the article said English learners have to memorize it. Perhaps, you know the reason of the order. Speaking of, I'm looking forward to the edited version.

Thank you,

Terecia"


My response:

"Very good question, Terecia! The correct way of saying this would be "Big Bad Wolf", but that does appear to break the rule.Sometimes the word 'big' can be interpreted in a different way when it comes to describing things with multiple adjectives. I will use 'big' and 'stupid' for this example.


A dog might be referred to as a "big stupid dog", even if the dog is not inherently large. In this sentence, the word 'big' isn't necessarily defining the size of the dog (even though it can be taken this way as well), but it's acting more as a superlative, meaning that it's emphasizing how stupid the dog is. This is much like the way that the word 'very' functions, in that you can replace the word 'big' with the word 'very' and it still has a very similar, but not quite the same meaning: "Very stupid dog"

This goes the same for the phrase "Big Bad Wolf". The word 'big' is emphasizing how bad the wolf is, but because the word 'big' still means 'large', the sentence can also be interpreted as the wolf being large.


I can only guess that this came from native English speaking children

that like to use the word 'big' to emphasize things before they learn

how to use the word 'very'. This would make sense considering that the

'Big Bad Wolf' is depicted in a children's story.


Up to this point, these are the only cases I can think of that would use this structure."

​© 2019 by CTJohansen

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